America Is Watching Something Else

SAN FRANCISCO (08/15/2000) - Call it a case of supply exceeding demand.

The Republican gathering in Philadelphia two weeks ago may have been the first authentic Internet convention, with dozens of Internet sites providing nearly continuous coverage. But Americans had almost no interest in experiencing the political event online, according to a new survey by the Vanishing Voter Project.

The project, a study of public participation in the 2000 election campaign by Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, found that a tiny fraction of 1,000 people surveyed during the GOP's four-day celebration watched on the Web. Thomas E. Patterson, co-director of the project and a Harvard professor, dubbed the Internet coverage "A Tale of the Missing Audience."

On a typical convention day, only slightly more than one-quarter of respondents had even logged onto the Net. Despite the continuous online coverage from approximately three dozen Internet outfits (including, only one in 30 adults spent more than a few seconds perusing that material. Only one in 63 sought convention information online, and only 1 in 500 participated in a convention-dedicated site, the survey found.

In a finding that doesn't bode well for politics-only startup sites, the great majority of respondents that sought convention coverage online went to a news site. But the vast majority of those who had contact with any convention-related coverage online landed there inadvertently.

"The Internet is not, at least in its present form, the answer to the problem of the dwindling convention audience," Patterson concludes. With television, viewers often settle on a program that they have encountered by chance while flipping channels. But Internet users typically begin a search with a particular destination in mind, he notes. "Unless they have an interest in politics, they are unlikely to seek out a political site or, if they encounter it, to stay for more than a few seconds."

In addition, the survey found that the Web fared poorly in an area where it boasts an advantage over TV. During the convention, Web sites touted their ability to involve viewers via chat rooms and polls. But not a single respondent in the Vanishing Voter's survey claimed to have participated in a convention-dedicated chat group during the GOP convention.

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